Why Thomas Jefferson was a Hypocrite
Was Thomas Jefferson a hypocrite?
Thomas Jefferson was without a doubt one of the most important figures in American history. He is best known for writing the declaration of independence. Nearly every elementary student in the nation knows his name. He was gifted in the fields of architecture, politics, law, and even science. For all of this to be possible, he must have been somewhat of an iconic figure, right? Right, but the fact that he was a hypocrite cannot be overlooked. Jefferson wrote about “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”, and claimed that “all men are created equal”, but held many slaves himself… (Declaration of Independence)
Upon researching this topic further, I found an interesting perspective given by one writer.
She says: “Taken out of context, portions of Jefferson's A View on the Rights of British America could be mistaken for excerpts of abolitionist literature. Jefferson writes, "The abolition of domestic slavery is the great object of desire in those colonies where it was unhappily introduced in their infant state." He also writes, "History has informed us that the bodies of men as well as individuals are susceptible to the spirit of tyranny." Throughout the text, Jefferson repeatedly equates Britain's treatment of the colonies to a master's arbitrary oppression of slaves. Based on these strong statements, it seems that Jefferson would be staunch advocate of the physical and intellectual freedom of every person, regardless of creed, race, or religion.” In reality, however, it is widely known that Jefferson did own slaves, and thus contradicted himself, again adding more evidence to the hypocrite argument. In Thomas Jefferson’s Notes on Slavery, he explains how blacks are equal to whites “by their faculties of memory, reason, and imagination”, but this is where the quality ends. He then goes on to explain how they are inferior in the realm of winter survival. He later goes on to say, “For in a warm climate, no man will labour for himself who can make another labour for him.” (Notes on Slavery) If Jefferson was in favor of emancipation, why did he own slaves himself? This question has yet to be answered. Some say that he owned slaves because of his infamous debt, while others say that he really had no plan for emancipation and was simply bluffing. In a letter from Benjamin Banneker in1791, Banneker writes “however variable we may be in society, or religion, however diversified in situation or color, we are all of the same family, and stand in the same relation to him.” In his reply, Jefferson says “Nobody wishes more than I do, to see such proofs as you exhibit, that nature has given to our black brethren talents equal to those of the other colors of men…” (Letters) In this scenario, it is almost as if Jefferson is siding with Banneker against the issue of slavery. But what about his slaves? It seems as if the last argument for the idea that Thomas Jefferson was an abolitionist lies in the fact that he had a child with one of his slaves. Although this fact proves that he did not see blacks aesthetically inferior, it still shows no real proof that he wanted the slaves to be free.
In the rough draft of the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson says, “Determined to keep open a market where men should be bought & sold, he has prostituted his negative for suppressing every legislative attempt to prohibit or to restrain this execrable commerce.” (Rough Draft) The fact that there had been a call for abolition in the rough draft of the Declaration of Independence shows that Jefferson was bluffing. He knew that the southern states were going to strike his attempt down, and so he was quick to show his fellow delegates how righteous he was. Again, in a letter to John Holmes, Jefferson states that “I can say, with conscious truth, that there is not a man on earth who would sacrifice more than I would to relieve us from this heavy reproach.” (Letter to John Holmes). In my personal opinion, Jefferson was a hypocrite. Saying that we should relieve ourselves from this burden, and calling for abolition, then turning your head and seeing slaves, the very burden about which you are writing makes you a hypocrite. If it does not, I do not know what would. Thomas Jefferson had a child with Sally Hemings for reasons unknown to us today. It is known that he had had a relationship with her, but the extent of this relationship was not known until recently. This fact adds even more fuel to the abolitionist fire, but it is still not reason enough to consider Thomas Jefferson a man of his word, or an abolitionist.
Thomas Jefferson was a man commendable for many of reasons, but he was unsuccessful in using the opportunity to guide America into a new age, an age of freedom. If his reason for owning slaves was financial, or if he felt that blacks were inferior, we will never know. Most likely, all of these factors combined lead to his situation. Unfortunately for him, Jefferson failed to practice his belief in equality in freedom when it came to his slaves. Because of the inconsistency in the field of slavery, and his contradicting words and actions, Thomas Jefferson was a hypocrite.